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Leverage Always Matters on Iran

Gary Sick, a Carter administration National Security Council aide, took to the pages of USA Today this past week to argue that the congressional bill to increase sanctions should Iran not negotiate in good faith or reach a deal is counterproductive. Sick wrote:

This misguided bill threatens to derail the negotiations and sabotage progress. Our negotiators do not want or need this extra sanctions threat. They already have a strong hand, and new sanctions will almost certainly be seen by Iran as evidence of bad faith.

Sick is wrong. Leverage matters. It always has. And no one should know that more than one Gary Sick. Sick bases his authority on his service during the Iran hostage crisis. Indeed, he begins his essay, “Thirty-five years ago, when the Iranian revolution overthrew the shah and our diplomats were taken hostage, I was in the White House. Many of those taken prisoner remain personal friends of mine.”

The hostage crisis, of course, figures heavily in my new book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes. The hostages were seized on November 4, 1979, after Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, publicly shook hands with Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, enraging Iranian hardliners surrounding revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I detail the episode here.

What is less known but has become apparent based on the Persian (Farsi)-language writings of the hostage takers is that the Iranian students who took the embassy did not initially plan to stage more than a symbolic sit-in lasting perhaps 48 hours. But, on November 6, 1979, a press report appeared citing an anonymous official who leaked word from the emergency meeting that occurred at the White House that there would be “no change in the status quo—no military alert, no movement of forces, no resort to military contingency plans.” The leaker, according to other members of Carter’s Iran team, was likely Gary Sick, who often talked to the press. Perhaps Sick, or the White House if the leak was authorized, believed that taking the threat of something worse to come off the table would enable diplomacy. But by removing the threat of force, it forfeited its leverage. The hostage takers learned that they had nothing to fear, and so a short hiccup transformed into a 444-day crisis that defined the Carter presidency. In effect, Sick counsels Obama and the Congress to make the same mistake twice.

The State Department seldom conducts lessons-learned exercises, but if it did, it would find that leverage always matters. Reducing leverage does not win agreements; it hampers them. While Sick reads good faith into Iranian actions, past and present, Rouhani’s own words belie that notion. Diplomacy should be a strategy of first resort, but diplomacy involves more than talking: it is the culmination of an elaborate game of three-dimensional chess as both sides maneuver for position and build up the leverage to achieve the best results for their country. Alas, that seems to be a notion Iranian leaders understand well, but it represents a blind spot for Sick and his fellow travelers, one that has cost the United States dearly over the years.



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